The Nupi Lan of 1939 and the Meira Paibi movement against state terrorism since 1980, in which women have played a leading role, are crucial components of an overall anti-colonial struggle says Malem Ningthouja.
The anti-colonial struggle in Manipur that began with the British invasion in 1881 and continues till today has passed through several historical phases and has varied expressions. Before I go deeper into describing the Nupi Lan, I would like to point out however painfully that the Nupi Lan of 1939 and the Meira Paibee movement (against state terrorism) since 1980, in which women have played or continue to play leading role, are crucial components of an overall anti-colonial struggle. Both the events constitute different moments of a continuous trend of anti-colonial struggle under the objective conditions of national subjugation that began with the British rule and was continued by the Government of India. Celebrating the victory of Nupi Lan, therefore, must not overshadow the ongoing movement for democratic revolution.
Historically the Nupi Lan had its immediate cause in the artificial famine of 1939 caused by the profiteering activities of the Mayang (Indian) traders who exported rice to colonial garrisons outside Manipur. When the ban on the export of rice was lifted in 1939 to the great advantage of the Mayangs, the price of paddy soared up, thus seriously affecting the local petty traders, mostly women, and the poor consumers as well. The atmosphere of agitation was looming with the women traders ready to take a course of action against the inflation and the starving stomachs.
On 12 December 1939 hundreds of women who were demanding an end to the free trade on rice besieged the president of the Manipur Durbar and the officials who came to the rescue of the president. In the scuffle that broke out between the women and the Assam Rifles, twenty-one women and one Indian officer and seven other ranks of the Assam Rifles were injured. In the following months, women targeted the rice-mills owned by the Mayangs, which, “with a daily turn over of 11,200 mounds of rice, absorb the entire paddy available in the state (and)… threw out of employment the bulk of the people who lived by husking”. Women boycotted the main bazaar, i.e., the hub of hoarding and profiteering that was under colonial protection, and protest meetings were held in the Police Bazar. They formed vanguards, intercepted rice carters carrying paddy for sale to the Mayang and at times threw cartloads of rice into the gutter. In January 1940 alone they held up about 150 rice-loaded carts.
In the course of the struggle, lasting several months, women besieged state thana and fought several pitched battles with the security personnel. In one of the pitched battles fought on 14 January, forty women agitators and some men were injured. Women organized against tax gathering, and the leaders advised the agitators to arm themselves with tem (a long wooden appliance used for weaving cloth) and wear two phaneks (sarong type of cloth worn by the women of Manipur) while confronting tax-collectors. In short, there was a qualitative shift of the movement towards popular struggle for a responsible government. The movement, however, subsided as a result of the approach of the Second World War in Manipur in the early 1940s.
The primary targets of Nupi Lan were the agents of exploitation and the visual manifestations that have symbolized the colonial sovereignty, e.g., the Mayangs and the Mayang owned mills. In fact, the Mayangs infiltrated into Manipur under colonial protection and by 1939 they enjoyed absolute monopoly rights in: cotton, tea-seed, bees-wax and agar, elephant tusk, deer horn and orchid trades; silk manufacturing, mulberry plantation or silk farming, timber felling and vehicular traffic; plantation in rubber, jade and chalmugra seed, orchid mahals (reserved area) and so on. On the eve of the Nupi Lan they were carrying out unrestrained trading to the great disadvantage of the local consumers.
Economic oppression under Indian traders had been resented as early as the Bazar Boycott (1920). An application that was addressed to the Manipur State Durbar, dated 28 September 1920 reads, “…that your humble petitioners are extremely aggrieved at the hard lot of the cart owners who owe money to the Marwari (businessmen). They are compelled to carry the goods of (Mayang businessmen) at a lower rate of annas /8/ or /12/ or even Rs 1 per maund than the ordinary market rate of hire, as they are not allowed to look to any means for their gains. Over and above this, they owe to (Mayang businessmen) according to the system of compound interest and to carry a few maunds in excess in every cart gratis. Moreover, there are the occasional insertions of fake and real accounts against their name (in the registration book) for taking some necessaries of the cart.
They even take interest on the value of the articles after turning them into capital. Thus after the end of the year when all accounts are settled and the interests are charged into capital, in spite of their hard labour throughout the year to clear the debt by occasional payment of the little savings of the wages they find to their great astonishment that about the same or even greater capital than that of the last year. Then they are compelled to write another bond (in the registration book) for the coming year. This gradually increases year by year till it is beyond their power of clearing it…”
While the administration and the economy were in the grip of the Mayang agents and traders, Manipur was garrisoned from time to time by hordes of Mayang armies such as the Assam Rifles, Gurkha Rifles, Bombay Pioneers, and Burma Military Police. Under the prevailing circumstances, the Mayangs were being looked upon with contempt as the agents of colonialism, the cause of administrative manipulation, cultural exploitation, economic drainage and underdevelopment. They, obviously, became the prime targets of attack during the Nupi Lan.
Nupi Lan was a crucial part of a series of organized anti-colonial struggles such as the First Women War (1904), Anti-Pothang Movement and Anti-Water Tax Agitation (1910s), the Thadou- Kuki Resistance (1917), Bazar Boycott (1920), and the Zeliarong Movement under the leadership of Jadonang (1920s). However, it took the movement to a qualitatively new level, as it not only targeted the colonial free trade on rice and the Mayang control of the economy but also paved the way to the movement for establishing a responsible government in Manipur.
The valiant role that women played in it has left a historical legacy while inspiring thousands of women to play an active role in the ongoing Meira Paibi movement. On 15 July 2004 a dozen Manipuri mothers stripped in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla demanding an end to state terrorism in Manipur. In other words, the Nupi Lan of 1939 is an event of the past, yet the objective conditions under which women waged the struggle remain more or less unchanged till today. If neo-colonialism has to be continuously superimposed upon Manipur, history will be an eyewitness to a series of Nupi Lans in the years to come.